When you think of Buddhism in the Indian sub-continent, the Himalayas come to mind. Red-robed monks chanting in ancient temples set in high-altitude villages untouched by time. Colourful prayer flags strung out across mountain passes or fluttering above freezing glacial lakes. And so it’s surprising to discover that the Buddha spent much of his time on the lowland plains of northern India, particularly in the impoverished state of Bihar.
It was here in Bodhgaya, sitting under a Bodhi tree 2600 years ago, that he found enlightenment. And today it’s a buzzing pilgrimage site, with visitors from all over the Buddhist world along with Western tourists and locals. Consequently, it’s not quite the haven of peace and tranquillity I was hoping for, but it’s a fascinating place to visit. It’s the Buddhist equivalent of Mecca, Jerusalem or the Vatican.
An offshoot of the original Bodhi tree stands behind the main Mahabodhi temple and is the focus of particularly intense worship. Circumnavigating the temple, you can see monks wearing the red robes of Tibet and Central Asia as well as those with the saffron robes common to South East Asia. There are old men and women from Tibet twirling hand-held prayer wheels, troupes of elegant Japanese ladies, camera-wielding Westerners (yes, that’s me!) and also huge groups of Hindus. I only learned when I arrived here that Hindus believe Buddha was a reincarnation of Vishnu.
Sadly, the town of Bodhgaya which has grown up around the temple is yet another unpleasant, traffic-choked, dusty and noisy Indian town drowning under its own rubbish with the inevitable rampant and venal commercialism which is rapidly becoming deeply tiresome. Luckily, I stayed in a little guesthouse 2 kilometres outside the centre in a slightly quieter neighbourhood.
A few hours from Bodhgaya lies the more laid back town of Rajgir where I spent a couple of nights. There are some intriguing Hindu sites around, like the marks in the ground supposedly made by Krishna’s chariot. But I was more interested in taking the chairlift to the top of a hill to see the Vishwashanti Stupa, a fairly modern Japanese temple. The Buddha spent a lot of time in this area meditating and preaching. It’s also an important place for Jains, as the founder of Jainism spent 14 years here.
I took a wonderful tonga, or horse and cart, to visit some sites, then hopped on a local bus to visit the nearby ruins at Nalanda, which in its time (1300 years ago) was one of the world’s greatest universities and an important centre of Buddhist learning. There’s not a huge amount left to see, but the site became a World Heritage Centre just this year and it’s a peaceful place to wander and reflect on an age which valued education, thinking and scholars more than we do today. As often when I’m in such places, I’m left wondering what of today’s world will remain to be visited by future tourists and exactly what cultural legacy will be left behind.